Oscar Season Diary #3: The Academy and Box-Office; Does it Matter for Women?

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I hate the word “gendered.”

Maybe it’s because we live in a time where it’s unjustifiably easy to see the dichotomy between male and female–especially within the film industry. Or maybe it’s because I know I use the word far too often, to highlight issues pertaining to the prior sentiment.

When you think about it, the existence of separate categories for actors and actresses at the Academy Awards is sort of sexist in itself. When the boundaries are set, difference is emphasized, and thus the funneling begins. A performance is a performance, and separating them based purely on gender has never felt right to me, never more so than now, when the American film industry is so conflicted in its representation of gender.

Since the 1970s, movie studios have benefited from this sort of separation of gender. The first round of true blockbuster films (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.) were male-centered. The trend of appealing to teenage boys continues today in what is very much the same vein of appeal as it was back then–even though that initial crop of young males are now well into their forties. Films are marketed to men, by men, and are consumed in varying quantities; whether you have a pre-destined hit like Iron Man 3 or a string of major flops like R.I.P.D., After Earth, The Lone Ranger, and White House Down, studios consistently push male-driven films like it’s the only thing they know how to do.

Films like Klute, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Network made the decade a breeding ground for powerful films about powerful women. Women drove the plot. They weren’t filler that needed justification simply to hang over a man’s head.

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But, women were still sexual, you might say. And not to the point that they are in films today. I’d actually say healthily so, as opposed to the empty sexuality we so often see on contemporary movie screens. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in 1971’s Klute is a prostitute both socially and sexually. She has sex with a lot of “Johns,” as she calls them, but rarely do we see her engaging in contemptible behavior. She doesn’t so much use her sexuality like a pawn in a chess game to get what she wants, but rather she absorbs the act of sex as a means to feel desirable. She’s not after the act of sex itself as much as she craves the closeness and sense of self-worth. She isn’t validated by sex, she’s validated by belonging–as a woman should–as an equal part of another person’s life.

Jane Fonda won Best Actress for the role in 1972.

Bree is a powerfully-written character, and the type of female character you don’t see anymore. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity is a similarly-detached female, having once been a mother but not bearing the weight of a mouth to feed anymore, as her daughter died at the age of four. Stone carries the grief, but doesn’t externalize it as a weakness. Instead, the film unravels as a rediscovery of herself; her rebirth; her coming to terms with her physical fragility (the fragility of life, not gender, mind you) on the brink of death as a means to regain a sense of worth that most women in film are only represented as possessing if they’re a mother or a wife. Stone has no generic tropes to validate her; she has only herself, and is validated in her strength and will to survive–to live life itself–with former pain (not in spite of it) that won’t drag her down anymore.

Sandra Bullock is currently neck-and-neck with Cate Blanchett for Best Actress over 40 years later.

The Academy has long been able to pick out strong female parts and amplify their effect. The crop of nominees for Best Actress reflected a diverse array of women that reflected the ever-present demand for strong female characters. Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, and The Impossible featured female characters that drove the plot of their respective films. Silver Linings Playbook, the film which took home the Best Actress award for star Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, happened to feature a fantastic actress in a male-driven film who won for a supporting role. Nonetheless, the age and cultural range (9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, 86-year old Emmanuelle Riva) compared to the Best Actor category was astounding.

While we’re still seeing male-driven, top-heavy blockbusters dominate the box-office, there’s no denying the impact women are having on American audiences. Let’s take a look at each of the films that have opened to over $35 million weekends so far this year:

  • Gravity – $55.8 million
  • Insidious Chapter 2 – $40.2 million
  • The Conjuring – $41.9 million
  • The Wolverine – $53 million
  • Despicable Me 2 – $83 million
  • Monsters University – $82.4 million
  • Man of Steel – $116.6 million
  • Fast & Furious 6 – $117 million
  • Star Trek Into Darkness – $70.2 million
  • Iron Man 3 – $174.1 million
  • Oblivion – $37.1 million
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $40.5 million
  • The Croods – $43.6 million
  • Oz The Great and Powerful – $79.1 million
  • Identity Thief – $34.6 million
  • The Heat – $39.1 million
  • World War Z – $66.4 million
  • The Hangover Part III $41.7 million
  • The Great Gatsby $50.1 million

If we remove sequels, family/animation films, and superhero/adaptation films, we’re left with:

  • Gravity $55.8 million
  • The Conjuring $41.9 million
  • Oblivion $37.1 million
  • Identity Thief $34.6 million
  • The Heat $39.1 million

Only one relied on the box-office power of its male star (Tom Cruise in Oblivion) to open a large number. The others? Driven largely by their appeal to women or appeal because of women. The Conjuring featured two strong central female characters (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor) in a genre that largely skews female, Identity Thief hit it big solely because of Melissa McCarthy’s presence, while her appeal combined with Sandra Bullock’s presence in The Heat propelled it to box-office success as well. What else do these four films have in common? They’re all films with original screenplays and successful gross to budget ratios (Gravity being the best opener. Go figure, with a woman pushing 50).

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That brings me back to Gravity and its Oscar chances. The Academy has a duty to not only legitimize itself by nominating great films, but also to reflect what the general public deems acceptable, as well. This is true more so in recent years where films like Avatar, Les Miserables, and The Help sneak into the Best Picture race. Audiences like films that make them feel good (even when more powerful, era-specific films like Zero Dark Thirty are perhaps more reflective of our cultural climate and, therefore, more “important”), and the Academy often falls victim to this sort of blind acceptance of anything that’s neatly-tied together and pushing as little buttons as possible. How else do you explain Argo winning the top prize last year? Unless you go with the Ben Affleck sob story, that is. Poor Golden Boy didn’t get a Best Director nomination, so we’ll console him with the year’s top prize for American films. No word yet on if Kathryn Bigelow will justifiably receive honorary Oscars for the next decade after embarrassingly-cruel tactics led by U.S. politicians (you know, people with real power outside a superfluous movie industry awards bubble) ruined the reception and impact of her film.

Gravity and the case for Sandra Bullock, however, reminds me of how the road to Oscars 2009 should have gone down if The Blind Side were a much more deserving film than it actually was. We saw Bullock win her first Oscar for her role in The Blind Side, a film that entered itself into the Oscar race thanks to its gigantic box-office success (nearly $300 million worldwide). While the film populated the clear “people’s choice” spot amongst the Best Picture nominees, there was no denying Sandra Bullock’s vital extra-filmic role in a changing moviescape. She’s one of the few movie stars (regardless of gender) who can still open a movie based on her presence alone. Even her less successful films of the past ten years manage to gross at least $30-$40 million domestically. It took me a while to realize that her win for Best Actress wasn’t for her performance, but for her essential presence in the industry as a whole.

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Gravity
is making its impact as a critical smash, box-office hit and, yes, a success for the gendered debate within the film industry. The Academy would be insane not to give Bullock the win, if not to pat themselves on the back for a job well done four years ago, but to cement the crown firmly atop the head of the face of the return of the powerful Hollywood female. While Cate Blanchett’s performance is far superior, it’s clear that Oscar has a duty here. In a year when each of the leading female contenders is over the age of 40 (the supposed “age of death” for an actress’ career), Oscar can sink the boat a’la 2012, or it can be on the right side of a changing tide. These women and films are proof that an actress’ career doesn’t have to fade once she reaches a certain age.

The answer to how this year will play out in the Oscar history books lies largely within Gravity.

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